LIV tour is off to a good start after its first two tournaments

With the LIV Golf League venturing outside of the United States for the first time this season, it’s a good time to reflect on what’s happening with this controversial circuit.

LIV has had events in Mexico and Las Vegas.  Both certainly fared well going head-to-head with PGA Tour stops, the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am and the Waste Management Phoenix Open.

Pebble was devastated by bad weather, the event being reduced to 54 holes  (just like LIV’s Mayakoba event).  A format change – reduced fields for both the pros and amateurs – didn’t help Pebble, either. The event lost the flavor it had built up over the years when Bing Crosby’s Clambake drew all the top pros and many of the best celebrity/amateur players.

Weather was a problem for the PGA Tour in Phoenix, too, but there was a more serious issue there.  The tournament announced attendance at nearly 250,000, which would be a record for any golf event, but the raucous behavior of many of those spectators were an embarrassment to the game in general.  Not even the players were reluctant to criticizing their own fans. This is a problem that must be addressed before the tourney is held in 2025.

Now on to LIV.  Tournament No. 3 of this year’s 14 events is March 1-3 in Jeddah – at the Royal Greens in King Abdullah Economic City, Saudi Arabia. No. 4 is the following week, March 8-10 in Hong Kong.

The competition was great at both Mayakoba and the Las Vegas Country Club. In Mexico it ended with a four-hole playoff in which Joaquin Niemann beat Sergio Garcia for the individual title. In Las Vegas another playoff seemed inevitable with six players tied for the lead late in the final round.  Extra holes weren’t needed, though, as Dustin Johnson became the first player to claim wins in each of the three seasons LIV has had events. No one could keep up with DJ playing more like he did in the first LIV season rather than the second.

What I’ll take away the most from the two tournaments, though, shifts to the team competition.  How could a team put together at the last minute – Jon Rahm’s Legion XIII – win in Mexico? And, how could Brooks Koepka’s revamped Smash GC squad romp in Las Vegas?

Actually, the issue isn’t so much how Smash won but rather how Koepka worked magic with his roster.  How do you wangle Talor Gooch, the best LIV player in 2023, from Bubba Watson’s RangeGoats?  That’s the biggest question of the day, but it was also a stroke of genius for Koepka to sign Graeme McDowell, a former U.S. Open champion who played for the Cleeks in Season 2, as a free agent.

Koepka had his under-achieving brother Chase and Matthew Wolff on his roster last season, with Jason Kokrak filling out the team. Smash was a seven-shot winner over Johnson’s 4Aces in Las Vegas.

Without saying how he did it, Koepka wasn’t surprised that his rebuilt team did well.

“That was the plan,’’ he said. “To bring in two guys with experience, that know how to win and to be in this situation where I feel we’re competing every week.’’

I’ve been big on the team concept since LIV’s creation, and the change to have all four players on each team count in the team score on the final day was a wise move.  The team competition still needs to get a bigger spotlight in each tournament, though.  Team play makes LIV unique among the other pro tours.

Bryson DeChambeau’s Crushers won the team title in 2023 but weren’t much of a factor in the first two tournaments of 2024. They will be, though, and that could trigger another level of interest.  Koepka and DeChambeau never were buddies on the PGA Tour.  Having their teams in head-to-head battles could produce some sparks, and there’d by nothing wrong with that.

LIV won’t play again in the U.S. until the week before the Masters.  The fledgling circuit gathers April 5-7 at Trump National Doral, in Florida, before more distant competitions in Australia and Singapore close out the first half of the season.